It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. So I sit here and look at a picture of my great-grandmother and her five sisters, the Hoeft sisters. The photograph has a red hue and I am estimating this family portrait was taken in the late nineteen twenties, based on their assumed ages. There are certain similarities among them – eyes, noses, mouths. If any of them have long hair, it is not know as it neatly tied out of sight as to expose their faces. It is easy to look at them as a whole, but the challenge is to remember they were individuals.
The oldest, Adena, has eyeglasses that somewhat mask her weary eyes. The lines of her face are softly filled but I have difficulty looking beyond her furrowed brow. Her hair is graying and wiry, making it appear a little unkempt. She is the most modestly dressed of all the sisters. She is wearing a dark dress that has a straight piece of material that runs down the mean of her chest, decorated with dark pea-sized rounded buttons. It is flanked with ruffles on either side. There is a flat collar that looks like a delicate doily from a grandmother's living room table. She is wearing a beaded necklace, graduating in size at its maximum length, which falls to the distance of the second button. It is not a necklace that matches the ensemble, but likely the only necklace that she owned. Her shoulders are rounded which mimics the natural downturn of her mouth. She is the second longest surviving sister at eighty nine years.
Erna was the youngest born and the youngest to die. She is seated so that her torso is not square to the camera, enhancing her slender lines. She is leaning forward, slightly, in a fashion that one would start a conversation. I find her gaze to be the most intensely haunting of all the women; you almost expect that she will speak to you with her painted lips. Her skin is youthful, vastly contrasting the thirteen year age difference of her eldest sibling. She has the clearest face, as if the lens was solely focused on her. She is outfitted in a plain dark dress with a slight scoop neck that reveals the deep shadows of her angular clavicle.
Selma is a woman that could have been anyone’s aunt. I envision that walking in her kitchen you could always smell the sweetness of fresh baked goods in the air. I can imagine her turning from the stove to give a big squishy hug. She probably was not a fancy woman as seen by her plain front dress, but very real. It is not adorned with buttons, a pattern, or ruffles – just a simple material with a slight shimmer. The heavy lace collar is the only embellishment. Her hair is tidy, exposing her rotund cheeks.
Esther was the mother of six children, four girls and two boys, and is my great grandmother. She stands in the back of them all with a rapid slope to her frame, almost as if her clothing is hanging on a hook. She has the most nurturing face of all of them; perhaps I am partial as I am of her blood. Her hair is still dark and has gentle waves with a couple sprigs out of place. I think I have her lips. Her eyes are a little dark but wide and always watching. She dons a light colored deep scoop neck top that appears lacey. A medium toned jacket with a darker intermittent vertical pattern conceals the rest. The fabric of the jacket closure is quite wrinkled, which makes her appear shabby. Maybe it suggests that she is busy taking care of her large family and does not concern herself with how she appears. After many hard years on the prairie, she was the first to pass.
Rena was never a biological mother, but as an aunt of thirteen, I am sure she displayed motherly characteristics from time to time. Perhaps being childless led to her earthly longevity of ninety eight years. Her eyes tell a story of concern as she shares the same worrisome brow of her oldest sister. She looks at the camera with half mast eyes, perhaps sorrowful or just merely tired. She was widowed just as long, if not longer, than she was married. But, while her husband was alive, she looks to be very well kept. Her dress has a large vertical hexagonal pattern, quite chic for the era. It is complemented with a sequence of flat light colored buttons sewn down the left side, adjacent to a ruffle. Her pearl necklace is picture perfect length, ending just above the neckline of her dress. She is an image of class.
Elsie is the smallest framed of all the women. She almost looks underweight with a minor inward curve of her shoulders. Her v-neck, short sleeved top appears large for her, as if she has lost weight. Although she does not have a predominate chin it is accentuated by her under bite. She has an oblong face with small features and round eyeglasses that look unusual for her thin face. Her position makes it appear that she is standing which implies a short stature.
I discovered this unlabeled photograph in my paternal grandmother's house about five years after her death. Five years too late. I live with the regret of not paying closer attention to the stories my grandmother told and the regret of not asking the questions that I now have. I can and have looked at this picture for hours in wonderment. The camera exposure time was too long to hold a smile, so sober they sit. Yet, their souls leap from the page and stroke my thoughts, begging for them to be preserved in remembrance.
To say that I am only a descendant of my great grandmother is insensitive. After all, these women were a part of each other’s lives and shaped each other’s characters. Their lives forever intertwined as siblings. They saw each other through the divorce of their parents near the turn of the twentieth century, witnessed each other’s weddings and raised the next generation together. Their bond was so close that even after death, they remain in close quarters. Five of the six are buried in the same cemetery in Ripon, Wisconsin – despite having lived in various towns, even states. The only exception is my great grandmother, who was buried in a cemetery close to the farm where she raised her children. I am sure that some of their qualities are embodied in me – laughter, love, charm, compassion. But which ones I will never know, as the secrets of our family are forever muted in this photograph.